Sunday, 27 November 2011

Scream 4 and the nature of horror

"How meta can you get?" is something that people in Scream 4 say. A lot. Most critics, when it came out last year, thought that it could have been, er, well, a bit less meta and a bit better. Which was a shame, since Scream (directed by Wes Craven and written by that most savvy of scribblers, Kevin Williamson), stands as a biting comment on horror films - and yet, as a truly biting horror film itself. Scream 2, with its film within a film (Stab, starring Tori Spelling, and retelling the events of Scream) succeeded; Scream 3 was, though it had lost its bite, still enjoyable as practically a screwball comedy. They all followed the practised ruts of a horror film though, in which an external force causes mayhem for a while, but is tamed and neutered. They do, though, like revenge tragedies, bleed into each other; and like revenge tragedies, it's very hard to stop the cycle. The Oresteia did it by chaining the Furies up underneath a statue of Athena - but you can't do that with mask-wearing pyschopaths, can you? There just isn't enough room.

So what of Scream 4? Well I would argue that it has found a way to end the cycle. The meta-ness takes many forms. There has been a Stab franchise (they are now on the sixth - or seventh - outing; nobody can quite agree). Sidney Prescott (an always effective Neve Campbell), the original survivor of all three films (boy she must have some scars, says someone wryly), has emerged from the darkness to write a memoir of her experiences, and returns to her home town to give a reading. Gail Weathers, the fast-talking reporter, is now married to dopey Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette), and unable to write her own novel (having written the book that Stab was based on). Meanwhile the highschool students act out versions of Stab, hang up ghostface masks in reference to the original killers, and even have their own Stabathon, where they watch all the films in one go whilst brandishing fake knives.

The pacing of the first two thirds is uneven; new characters are either goofy (such as Dewey's deputy and Sidney's assistant, one of whom dies [the wrong one, in my opinion]) or unbelievable, like the high school geek who records his entire experience on a webcam nailed to his head. Imagine Peepshow, but with added toilet time. Mercifully we get none of that. The death scenes are not particularly frightening; and there is hardly a batsqueak of suspense. But it's still enjoyable, as a curiosity.

Until the final reel, that is, when a surprise is sprung upon us in true Wes Craven style. The film becomes a mordant, affecting response to the horrors of social networking and the vapid need for fame, with echoes of Nicole Kidman's To Die For. As a film, it's entirely clued up (with references to mobiles, Facebook, Twitter and so on) - but these references are not merely window dressing. They are part of the texture of the whole, and essential to the success of the film.

The last third, when Sidney is running for her life, then becomes almost better than the first three films put together. The tension, entirely lacking, suddenly appears like a noose around the neck.  Everything is called into question: love, family, friendship; the nature of celebrity, the desire for an admired self. Nothing is sacred in Scream 4. Which makes it, perhaps, closer to the bone than any of its predecessors. And in the final scene, after the film has quietly managed to laugh at itself, you're left feeling troubled, not cleansed; and that, surely, is what a horror film is meant to do.

As the final credits roll, the horror is rooted deep inside the viewer, much as it is when you read of true crime. There is nowhere left for the Scream series to go. In its meta-ness it returned to the beginning; but it's also carved out an end.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Immortals: review

There is no canon in Greek myth. They're fluid, and The Immortals has moulded something of its own out of them, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to hardly any of the legends we know. It's crazy, balletic, silly, powerful, beautiful, and totally ridiculous; and it's also amongst the most fun and impressive films that I've seen this year.

Theseus and his army
It takes place in a never-never Greece (about 1,200 BC, apparently, although it looks more like an alien desert landscape); the Olympian gods have suppressed the Titans (who suffer, chained up in something that looks like it came from the brain of the Human Centipede guy, under a mountain) but have decided not to take any active part in human affairs. This does not prevent Zeus, however (played with an impish might by Luke Evans) from disguising himself as an old man - and not just any old man, but John Hurt, who is so wise that practically every other word is an aphorism – in order to influence (but not actively, you see) his son Theseus, who must learn to do things of his own free will (and not having been influenced by Zeus. At All.)

Theseus lives in a stone town which has conveniently been carved out of rocks looking over a cliff edge, which can't be very practical, or comfortable when the wind blows, but that doesn't really matter, because it looks pretty impressive. Theseus is also a humdinger of a man - played by Henry Cavill, who's obviously been working out (since he's about to play Superman) - he's the sort of chap that would make the average Abercrombie and Fitch model not want to take his top off on the beach for shame. He is not the prince of myth, though; he is a humble peasant who would die to protect those he loves. He's also pretty nifty with a spear, as it turns out, which is lucky. Think Brad Pitt in Troy but without the sulkiness. And boy does the camera love him, lingering on his body whenever it can; even when he's close to death, having been enslaved, he looks like a bronzed Lycidas. Even the virginal Oracle  (Frieda Pinto, for whom most would swoon any day) whose second sight is tied to her chastity, thinks twice when she sees Theseus. Cavill does a good job with the fairly dire script, too - when he gave a speech to his soldiers to rouse them up a bit, I found myself getting roused up too, despite the cringeworthiness of the lines.

Zeus and Athena: Daddy's girl
The village's - and all of Greece's - existence is threatened: the vile King Hyperion wishes to find the Epirus bow (a magical weapon of great power) and, well, like all baddies ever, take over the world; he also wants to unleash the Titans, though quite why is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, he invades a monastery where the Oracle lives - who happens to be an extremely beautiful girl who likes sleeping on a silken couch with her three other very beautiful oracle-friends - and tortures and kills people, willy-nilly. When one of Theseus' villagers defects to Hyperion's camp, and sees a silver bull into which victims are thrown and burned, as well as dead bodies hung up everywhere, you can almost hear him think, uh oh, this was a bad idea, wish I'd stayed with those lame villagers... Hyperion is so evil he makes Darth Vader look like Bambi. He likes wearing masks, too, as do all his followers - weird, toothy animal masks. He believes in democracy, you see (apparently).

The plot, though, is sort of beside the point, because every scene is so enthrallingly enjoyable in its sumptuous finery, violence or lunacy that one is compelled throughout. It doesn't seem to matter that the Olympus of the Greek gods resembles a gay nightclub, with all the male gods lounging around half-naked  in diamant√© and Heath-Robinson hats (there's only one female god, Athena, played by a too-beautiful Isabel Lucas - she should have been Aphrodite, surely?) Nor does it matter that the oracle and her friends wear jangling tea-cosies on their heads. I think the film itself is aware of its excesses - Theseus laughs at a priest's similar headgear.

The film has its own grace, and if you are prepared to take it on its own terms, then you'll find yourself swept away just as if Poseidon himself had come down and caused a tidal wave. And the final scenes point towards a sequel that looks like it might be even bigger, and even sillier, with an aeronautical battle between gods and Titans. Hats off - the sillier the better - to director Tarsem Singh, for this deeply luxurious nugget.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Vampocalypse: Stake Land, dir. by Jim Mickie: review

I'd seen the poster of Stake Land, as I got off the tube at Piccadilly, maybe a hundred times; although I am a fan of vampire movies, the poster made it out to be some kind of shlock horror, with a field of crucifixes and a grizzled looking vampire hunter. That couldn't be further from the truth. It's a thoughtful, beautifully filmed, apocalyptic movie, having more in common with Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the mythical qualities of Near Dark.
Stake Land: mythical

The premise is simple - and one that was played with in the excellent Zombieland, although of course (as you can probably guess from the title) that had zombies as the agent of apocalypse of choice. (They really ought to think up something else, don't you think? Zombies, vampires, werewolves... what next? Killer banshees? Kelpies? Pixies? Just how many mythological creatures can act as metaphors for our diseased culture? I'm rooting for evil mermaids, myself.)

In Stake Land, as in Zombieland, a young teenager called Martin's (a brilliantly vulnerable Connor Paolo) family is wiped out; he hitches up with a tough-talking killer who takes out as many of the undead as possible. I think that in Zombieland Woody Harrellson (who plays the killer to Jesse Eisenberg's geeky ingenue) says "I hate zombies" - although for comic effect. Nick Damici, the enigmatic vampire killer Mister in Stake Land, grizzles "I hate vampires!" You can't avoid it.

But Stake Land doesn't go for the funnies. It's a very moving quest narrative, in which the pair - who quickly develop a surrogate father / son relationship, with Martin visibly toughening up as Mister trains him in the arts of vamp-execution - head towards a new Eden in the north, supposedly untouched by the plague of vampires (although think about the problems of calling something Eden if it's meant to be a symbol of hope). Along the way they rescue a nun from rape (killing the potential rapists) and pick up a pregnant singer; moments of tenderness, however, are fleeting, since the countryside they move through is controlled by The Brotherhood, a sinister organisation that believes vampires are God's answer to rooting out evil from the world. The Brotherhood wears sacking and actually hurls vamps down onto gatherings from helicopters - vampire bombs, which must be a new thing. It means everything is on a knife edge, though - any gathering might be uprooted at any moment. A little girl's shoe poking out from under a blanket is a particularly poignant reminder of the mindless nature of the killings.

There are consolations: religion, as little statuettes of Mary and Jesus become particularly significant, and a cross that the nun gives Martin becomes a totem. That totemic power can shift though, as it does (in a nice twist that I won't reveal) at the end, with a skull on a necklace. In a striking scene, as the nun flees for her life she sees a body nailed up in a crucifixion pose: though in life it was an execution, it gives her the courage to make a final decision. There is also friendship. As an allegory, the film works on many levels, but one that it particularly insists upon is that: life is fleeting. Live and love whilst we can: you never know when somebody might throw a berserking vampire into your midst. (For vampires, of course, we can read variously bombs, financial crises, contagious diseases - any of the particular modern real bogeymen.)

Unfortunately, the leader of the Brotherhood is the father of one of the would-be-nun-rapists; he wants revenge on Mister. Which he does so, in spectacularly horrific fashion, of course. But don't worry - there is hope, or at least the promise of hope. What all these apocalyptic films - and particularly the two under discussion - seem to offer us is that despite everything collapsing around us, you can always trust in human relationships. (Unless that human is a crazed religico-psychopath-vampire lover, of course.) Stake Land is an excellent addition to the genre, and whilst it obviously plays within the rules, it shows a distinct style and passion which set it out from the rest. I hope to see more from its director, Jim Mickie. Now how about those world-dominating mermaids?

Friday, 11 November 2011

Maggie Stiefvater Celebration

To the Haymarket Hotel, and a room underground which was next to a swimming pool and might just as well have been Blofeld's lair. I think there were sharks in that pool, and they certainly had lasers on their heads. The reason for the dinner was to celebrate the American writer Maggie Stiefvater, who is younger than me and has written many successful books about evil fairies, and werewolves, amongst other things. They've sold a quarter of a million. That's a quarter of a million. Yes indeed. Her new book, The Scorpio Races, is out now. Dinner was excellent - champagne flowed as fast as the waterfall feature in the swimming pool; I had figs of tender puckishness, although my chicken was as dry as the unmoving eyes of a statue. (You can see I am making a bid to be A A Gill. Or Giles Coren. Or Miles Jupp. Maybe the latter would be nice.) Maggie Stiefvater was charming and funny and I think I am a little bit in love with her (but she is married and has children). Hurrah for Scholastic, and hurrah for Maggie!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tatler, December 2011: Champagne in a Chateau

A staircase is the best place to have a party, I find
So, last night was Tatler's Little Black Book Party, which was a deliciously raucous affair in Annabel's, and was positively thrumming with good looking, talented and fun people - and me. Don't know how I managed to slip through the net, but still... What was a real pleasure was that Kira Jolliffe was there - I'd never actually met her before, but I wrote my first article for her for her magazine, Cheap Date, about guerilla fashion at school. I really enjoyed writing it, and it set me on my path - although I've never written about fashion since (I'd love to though. Come to think of it, I like writing about most things. Post it notes. Space. You know, everything.) There was plenty of flirting, smirting, chatting, and ridiculous dancing.

Also in Tatler this month (the December issue, with the lovely Anna Friel on the cover in a Father Christmas hat) are the results of a shoot I did in the summer, in the Moet and Chandon Chateau in Paris. The theme was Bright Young Things - hem hem (I was a Hot Young Thing in Tatler once; soon I'll be a Lukewarm Young Thing, and from then on  it's a slippery slope...) As you can see from the photograph on the right, we obviously had a lot of fun in the chateau. The shoot lasted from about 6 in the morning till late at night. Somebody knocked over a champagne fountain (thank goodness it wasn't me.) To say that there were liberal amounts of champagne would be akin to saying that on the moon there's quite a lot of rock. I was mostly amazed by how expensive the girls' dresses were. And how difficult to put on (not that I tried, of course.)

Who's who: In the front row, left to right, is model Anouska Beckwith; actress Daisy Lewis; portrait painter Phoebe Dickinson. Behind are fashion designer Charlie Casely-Hayford, actress Amy Beth Hayes, and your humble scribe self; behind are director Luke Rodgers, jewellery designer James Boyd, and photographer Zoe Zimmer; and standing at the very top is songstrell Charlie Simpson.